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NBA’s Discipline of Robert Sarver Is Perhaps Just the Beginning

The consequences for an NBA owner simply aren’t as severe compared to others.

Adam Silver did not see enough, as the NBA’s ultimate judge and jury, to justify permanently banishing Suns owner Robert Sarver for a litany of racist, sexist and abusive behavior. This much, we know after hearing Silver on Wednesday explain his rationale for Sarver’s one-year suspension, and his rationalizations for not going further.

Left unsaid by Silver: It’s hard to oust a team owner, no matter how abhorrent their behavior. The bar is high, the legal barriers considerable, the path daunting. And Silver would need a minimum of 23 owners to back him even if he wanted to force Sarver to sell.

But let's set all that aside for a moment and consider instead an alternate history:

An NBA franchise is for sale. Robert Sarver is a wealthy Arizona banker who has just filed a bid. The league, in conducting its due diligence, obtains an internal investigation by Sarver’s company, revealing that he repeatedly used the “n-word”; suggested that an employee’s wife likely “gave good blow jobs”; declared, “I hate diversity”; made remarks about the size of employees’ genitalia; forwarded pornographic material and sex jokes to male employees; and told a pregnant employee she wouldn’t be able to do her job effectively because she would soon be breastfeeding.

How many seconds would elapse, in this alternate history, before the NBA’s Board of Governors threw that bid in the shredder and effectively told Sarver to, well, go (blank) himself? There isn’t a chance in the world—zero, zilch, nada—that he’d be approved as a member of their elite club with that kind of rap sheet.

The NBA, of course, does not have the luxury of hindsight, nor the technology from Minority Report to anticipate potential future crimes. Sarver was approved on his financial merits back in 2004, with no apparent disqualifying red flags.

But the league does know now what the man is capable of: crude and belittling remarks, bullying of subordinates, racist language and misogynistic comments that created a hostile, fearful climate for countless Suns employees over the last 18 years. If that sort of documented, repeated behavior would be disqualifying of a potential NBA owner—and rest assured, it would—how is it not disqualifying of a current owner?

Or, as we asked Silver on Thursday: How can Sarver retain his standing in the NBA, when the same behavior would have triggered the immediate, unconditional termination of any team or league employee? Why should basic standards of workplace behavior—and, frankly, basic human decency—be different for a team owner?

Silver’s response: “There are particular rights here of someone who owns an NBA team, as opposed to somebody who is an employee. The equivalent of a $10 million fine and a one-year suspension, I don’t know how to measure that against a job. … But to me, the consequences are severe here on Mr. Sarver. Reputationally, it’s hard to even make those comparisons to somebody who commits an inappropriate act in the workplace in somewhat of an anonymous fashion, versus what is a huge public issue now around this person.”

Silver concluded: “There’s no neat answer here,” and noted that owning a team is “different than holding a job.”

Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver against the New Orleans Pelicans during game two of the first round for the 2022 NBA playoffs.

Although Silver probably didn’t mean to, he effectively confirmed the worst fears of every working person: that the rules are different for the rich. Especially the uber-rich.

A league spokesperson later issued a statement clarifying that Silver “did not mean to suggest that NBA players, team employees and team owners are not held to the same standard of appropriate conduct; they absolutely are.”

That’s surely what the league aspires to, but it is clearly not the reality. And as clumsy as Silver’s first response was, it was sadly the more accurate one. The consequences for an NBA owner simply aren’t as severe.

An employee rightly fired for sexist or racist behavior might not make their next rent payment, or readily find another job. But Sarver gets to keep his job, and profit handsomely from it.

During his one-year suspension, Sarver will be barred from games and team facilities, and any team or league business. But he will still earn millions in those 12 months, while the Suns’ value—estimated at $1.8 billion by Forbes—will surely keep rising. The $10 million fine—the maximum Silver could issue under league by-laws—is substantial, but with a net worth estimated at $400 million to $800 million, Sarver will hardly feel it.

So no, there’s no comparison between the consequences for an NBA employee and an owner, no matter what the league says. And Silver, in fairness, cannot single-handedly change that reality. He works for the 30 owners, not the other way around. There are limits to his authority, which frankly should be viewed as the subtext to all of his muddled responses Wednesday.

We know enough about Silver’s personal principles, and his past actions, to safely assume he’d rather be rid of Sarver. He’d rather be able to say, affirmatively and unequivocally, that the NBA truly does hold everyone to the same standards. But without the backing of those other owners—some of whom perhaps have their own skeletons to guard—he cannot force Sarver to sell his team.

Yet Silver did have another tool at his disposal. He could have suspended Sarver longer—for two years, or three or five or 10. He has that authority, and he chose not to use it, perhaps leery of a potential lawsuit. A longer suspension might have induced Sarver to step down as majority owner, or sell outright. We’ll never know.

Or maybe what the NBA needs is stronger standards and better tools in its own bylaws, so the league can truly hold an owner just as accountable as it holds, say, an equipment manager. Because the outcome in this case is profoundly disappointing—and not just to media commentators.

In the wake of Wednesday’s press conference, I received texts from more than a dozen people—including coaches, players, broadcasters, team and league employees (both former and current)—all expressing their frustration with Silver’s decision and his explanation.

“It was pathetic,” texted a former NBA employee with decades of league experience.

Eight years ago, it was a groundswell of player outrage, and the threat of a potential strike during the playoffs, which helped build momentum for Silver to permanently banish Clippers owner Donald Sterling for making racist remarks. Notably, the initial ESPN report documenting Sarver’s transgressions, published last November, did not trigger the same sort of mass outrage. But the tone started to shift in the wake of Silver’s press conference.

By Wednesday evening, two of the NBA’s most influential players had weighed in via Twitter, with LeBron James saying, “Our league definitely got this wrong. … There is no place in this league for that kind of behavior,” and Suns guard Chris Paul stating, “The sanctions fell short in truly addressing what we can all agree was atrocious behavior.” The executive director of the players union, Tamika Tremaglio, went one step further, saying, “Mr. Sarver should never hold a managerial position within our league again.”

So maybe Silver’s initial judgment is not the final word, after all. There’s still time for the players, the public and corporate sponsors to demand stronger action. There’s still time to do the right thing. And maybe this is just the beginning, not the end.

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